He leaned on the broken down perimeter fence, and gazed across the deserted airfield. In the distance to the south west he could make out the old group H.Q. buildings, now occupied by a construction company. To his right toward the north stood what was left of the Squadron Site, and closer to him the dispersal areas. Great round pans of concrete, each with a taxiway connecting to the perimeter track. Because of their shape everyone had called them ‘banjo’s’.
It was six am. He smiled to himself, it used to be called 06.00 hours. Finding a gap in the fence, he strolled slowly to one of the ‘banjo’s’, and stepped onto the huge concrete pan. Surprisingly, after all these years, there were four equally spaced dark patches where the bombers engines had sweated, and dripped after each long mission. At the far edge he stepped on something hard. Bending to look, he saw a bolt some two inches long, and about half an inch thick. It was dark with age, but curiously with no corrosion. He picked it up. It was cold in his hand. He dismissed the thought that it had actually come from his “Kite”. Again he smiled, he hadn’t called an aeroplane a “Kite” for so many years. He walked over to the spot on the grass where the crew had always sat and chatted with the ground crew while awaiting confirmation that the “OP” was on.
Suddenly, there was a ringing clang of metal on concrete, and a broad Lancashire accented voice shouted “EE…..it!! Morrie, get t” bloody spanner fer us.” He swung round, startled almost out of his wits. The ‘banjo’ was empty. In a split second the years rolled back. ‘Derek’, he thought. Derek Pierce had been the engine fitter, and Morrie the little Jewish airframe rigger. He shook his head. ‘How stupid’, he mused. He looked at the bolt he’d picked up. Knowing how silly it was, he wrapped it in his handkerchief, and slipped it into his pocket.
Taking one more glance round the ‘banjo’, and shaking his head again, he wandered over to the buildings. There were only a couple of the old billets left, and those were in an advanced state of decay. Going deeper into the site, he came to the old crew room. Two large nissen huts made into one, and still in quite good condition. The door was missing, and the glazing had disappeared from the windows. Stepping into the semi gloom, he was amazed to see the remains of the old furniture. A table with two legs missing, a few chairs and another table which actually had all it’s legs. At the far wall opposite the door, was an old
leather bound armchair. Sagging and ripped, he remembered that that was the way it had always looked, and that it had been ‘Titch’ Ball’s chair (or so he had always claimed). Little Sergeant Ball. A bit of a character, who for some reason known only to himself, wore suede shoes all the time. Always he complained of the cold in his rear turret. (Even when it wasn’t).
Going round the crew room he experienced waves of nostalgia as the memories came flooding back. Laughs, jokes, arguments, horseplay, and disquietingly rude songs as the crews pretended to relax, and show manly indifference to their ever present fear.
“My God,” he thought “We were like delinquents.”
He stood for a while trying to recall faces. Many came to mind easily, but others were difficult. He went to the doorway, his emotions were mixed, and he felt lonely in this dead place which had once been his whole world.
Suddenly, a cockney voice shouted, “For Christ sake Nav’, shut that bleeding door1”
His blood seemed to freeze, and for a moment he was stricken with fright. Slowly turning to look back, he saw the crew door was as he’d just seen it. Dusty, and dilapidated. Fleetingly, his mind went back to the ‘banjo’ and Derek’s clanging spanner. Gathering himself he realised that his memories had seemed almost real. Smiling, he called out “Belt up Titch” and walked out. He almost laughed when he imagined ‘Titch’ bellowing after him, “Get stuffed Nav.”
Ahead of him was a large rectangular building. This one was built of bricks, and was still solid. It appeared to be low, no more that four feet high. This was because the lower half had been constructed below the ground. Wondering what was different about it, he realised that the wall of protective sandbags had long ago disappeared.
Going down the steps to the double doors of the entrance, he was mildly surprised to find the doors in quite good condition. He pushed gently, and each door swung quietly open. For a moment he hesitated, then walked in. The half windows high up in the walls gave enough light for him to look around. At the end of the huge room was the raised platform from which the “Wingco” had blithely told the assembled crews that:- “This one gentlemen, should be a piece of cake.”
On the wall behind the platform was a huge wall to wall map. “Unbelievable”. He whispered. The map showed the Eastern Atlantic and covered Southern England, France, The Bay of Biscay down to Portugal and Spain. His heart seemed to stop, then it began to pound until he felt dizzy. His eyes were fixed on the bright red tape which showed the route from
this very spot, out South West into the Atlantic. Then, due East to the great port of Brest. Although the sweat was pouring from him, he was trembling with dread, yet felt so very cold.
He stood still, as around him he heard the scraping of chairs, and the old familiar rustling of leather Irvine jackets. A strong whiff of tobacco smoke came after the rasp of matches, and the click of lighters. Still he did not, – could not – move.
From nowhere came the polished voice of the Wing Commander. “Maximum height for this attack gentlemen, is one hundred feet. Lower if you can, but the magic height is one hundred.”
He sank onto the nearest dusty chair, trembling with shock. The Wing Commander’s voice came again in that lazy drawling upper class accent:- “I will be leading this time chaps.” Then clearly, very clearly, he heard Freddy Parker say, “Bloody Hell Fire.”
How long he stayed there he never knew. Ten seconds, or ten hours, he just did not know. Somehow he found himself stumbling through the double doors into the early morning light. The last he heard was the Signals Officer saying:- “Call sign for this ‘OP’ is “Outlaw,” so you will be “Outlaws one to ten.”
A mist had risen, and he knew that it was going to be a lovely June day. Looking around he saw that most of the other buildings were either gone, or ruined. The Control Tower was still there, and the stairs were down which prevented any exploration.
He slowly walked the two hundred yards to the runway, and sat on the wet grass with his feet on the concrete edge. Checking his watch, he was shocked to find that only twenty minutes had passed. It was impossible. Yet it felt so real. Reaching to his pocket he took out the bolt, and unwrapped it from the handkerchief. What did this bolt know? Had it been part of the killing? It lay still in his hand. Unmoving, yet alive. The man wondered it it has absorbed any of the blind rage, or the stomach churning terror of battle to hold forever in suspended time. Suddenly, names came flooding back, racing through his brain like wildfire all seeming to call at once as though eager to let him know they were still there. He smiled to himself as he recalled that morning when “Snowy” White had shouted; “Come in Outlaw six, I’m right behind you. Pull your bloody finger out.” With an effort he collected himself, put the bolt back into his pocket, got to his feet and walked off. There came a soft rumbling noise from the Eastern End of the runway. Stopping, he looked back. His heart pounded. He knew that sound. OH! He knew that sound so well, even after all those years.
He waited there. Just waited.
The rumble increased. Faster and faster. He as trembling in every limb as he waited. The rumbling changed in pitch as the power increased. Suddenly it became the deep roar that was so familiar to him. Rooted to the spot, he waited for what he knew was coming. “No!” he whispered. “No!” Then suddenly from the mist came a huge four engined bomber. It was just lifting off, and the wheels were started to retract. The deafening sound made the very ground seem to shake. He held his breath at the sight of the great ‘Liberator’ Bomber as it vanished into the mist. Then, silence. He remembered that their Flight Engineer had always complained at every take off about the skipper raising the undercarriage too quickly.
The mist was lifting. The Airfield was now very quiet. Nothing moved. Nothing at all. He felt sad, and alone as he took one last look round before walking slowly away from the place where he had grown up.
Approaching the fence he came to with a start. Another car was parked next to his own. His wife and son were standing watching him. A mixture of guilt and anger ran through him. This was a private and personal thing he was doing.
He wearily climbed through the fence, this time really feeling his age. “How did you know?” he asked.
He brushed the grass from his suit. “I know what day this is just as well as you do.” She told him. Her words were gentle.
The mist was clearing quite quickly as the man looked back to the old buildings and the runway. “I saw it,” he whispered. “I saw it. I know I did.”
His son said quietly, “We saw it too dad.” He thought for a moment. “God! What a sight it was.”
The lad’s mother was gazing into the far distance. “So that would have been the insufferable ‘Titch’ Ball in the rear turret?”
Her husband smiled. “Insufferable? Yes. But he was very brave.”
They stood in silence for some minutes before deciding to leave. He and his wife in one car, their son in the other. Just before driving away, their son shouted for them to wait.
“Can you hear that?” He called.
Faintly, but clearly from the old crew room came the words of “Whip her knickers away lads.” They listened to the rude words. “Titch’s” voice was the loudest. Later they drove slowly off to the chorus of, “There was an Old Monk of Great Renown, who kissed all the Women in London Town.”
She looked at him, She smiled gently and winked. “you really were a disgusting lot weren’t you?”
They stopped at the village for breakfast. The café was new to him. It certainly had not been there in his day. The elderly lady who served them asked if they were just passing through or visiting, eyeing the man’s somewhat dishevelled appearance. They told here that they had been to the old airfield. She nodded and told them that the local people never went near the place.
“There’s some as says it’s haunted.” She said.
When pressed to elaborate, she told of the singing that was sometimes heard.
“Words that I’d never dream of repeating.” She sniffed with distaste. She looked steadily at the man.
“Only once a year though. Today as a matter of fact.”